Some Northeast residents near Capitol Hill, angry about the number of shelters in their neighborhood, are trying to use a new change in District zoning laws to close part of one that was opened without a permit three years ago.

Meanwhile, the city agency overseeing the shelter, rushing to meet the new zoning law requirements, has thrust a network of shelters for homeless and battered women into the center of a test case of the new law.

At issue is whether the House of Ruth may continue to use four trailers with 54 beds behind a shelter for women on 10th Street NE.

At a nearly seven-hour-long hearing before the Board of Zoning Adjustment last month, residents begged the city to remove the trailers, complaining that there are at least four shelters within five blocks of them. They said the streets, alleys and recreation areas in their neighborhood are overloaded with transients from these shelters, some of whom they contend are involved in crimes, including illegal drug use and prostitution.

"I don't think any of us are opposed to a facility in the neighborhood -- if it were smaller," said Allen Garr, who lives nearby on F Street NE. "What's really upsetting is the incredible density of shelters in our neighborhood . . . . There's more theft, solicitation, public drinking."

House of Ruth representatives countered that the need is grave, that every trailer bed is occupied every night, and that if the beds are removed, the women would be forced onto the street.

"For the 54 women in those trailers, there is no other alternative," shelter Executive Director Ellen Rocks said at the hearing.

The trailers have become an issue now because of the District's new land use plan, approved last May after a long and tumultuous debate in the D.C. Council. The plan, which established policies for housing, transportation and land use, contains an amendment that stipulates that all buildings owned by the District must start meeting city zoning regulations.

The 10th Street shelter is owned by the city, which contracted with the House of Ruth to run it. When it opened 12 years ago, its permit authorized 84 beds. The trailers, added in 1987 without a permit change, expanded the facility to 138 beds. To meet the new land use plan, the city rushed to change the permit.

"This is the first time the neighborhood could fight back," said Diana Offen, a local Advisory Neighborhood Commission member. "When the trailers were first put in three years ago, there was no hearing."

Initially an ANC committee recommended approval of the permit, but after angry residents turned out to oppose it, the commission voted to oppose it.

Zoning officials would not comment on a case before the zoning board. A ruling by the zoning board is set for Feb. 6.

A spokesman for the D.C. Office of the Corporation Counsel, the legal arm of the city, said the counsel's interpretation of the new law is that it affects only new city facilities and that the trailers should be exempt because they have been used for a shelter for three years.

But former D.C. Council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), who introduced the amendment, said the four trailers should be considered new because they have been operating without a permit.

Spokesmen for both sides said they have tried unsuccessfully to reach a compromise. At the zoning board hearing, Rocks testified that the House of Ruth had a five-year plan to phase out the trailers, but offered to change that timetable to three years.

Neighborhood leaders said they would not budge because of the circumstances.

"It's totally out of hand," said Patty Doyle, who lives in the 900 block of Maryland Avenue NE. She said she has found syringes near her house and women soliciting in the alley. "And those women are coming from House of Ruth," she said.

Paul Newton, House of Ruth board president, acknowledged that there have been problems, but said neighbors are overstating them:

"We get a lot of residents that have abuse problems," he said. "We're probably the most concerned with the issue of the behavior of {shelter} residents . . . . Opponents to the application are making a strong effort to attribute every problem in the neighborhood to House of Ruth."

Shirley Malone, the shelter's program director, said she walks through the neighborhood to make sure women from the shelter are not causing trouble.

But Offen said her tolerance has waned: "I realize House of Ruth is trying to provide a place for homeless women, but that shouldn't be at the expense of the neighborhood."